Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Reviewed by Jim Gallen

by Alan Moorehead
Ballantine Books, 1956. Reprint: Aurum Press Ltd., 2015

For many seasoned students of World War I, Gallipoli is little more than a name, a symbol of failure, and the place where the Australia/ New Zealand Army Corps got its baptism of fire. Some have heard that it was Winston Churchill's great failure that he tried to redeem by his "soft underbelly" strategy against the Axis in World War II. This reprint of the 1956 classic Gallipoli by Alan Moorehead reveals the Gallipoli campaign to be a complex operation, commenced with potential and concluded in controversy and with proficiency.

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When the Western Front had stagnated, the Gallipoli campaign provided an opportunity to tip the balance, draw Ottoman forces from the Caucasus Front opposing the Russians, knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war, and open the Dardanelles to the shifting flows of Russian grain and Western aid.

The first plan was for old ships of the Royal Navy to force the Dardanelles. When that failed the initiative shifted to land. The courage displayed at Anzac Cove is an important but not the only tale in this saga. British forces landed at Suvla Bay and Cape Helles while French forces landed a few miles away, in Asia, at Kum Kale. This battle included some features unprecedented in military history. It was the largest amphibious operation to its time and the first in which submarine interdiction of supplies, by both sides, played a significant role. In an era before sonar and depth charges, anti-submarine warfare consisted of firing on subs when they surfaced to attack or recharge their batteries. Allied defeat resulted from a combination of dogged defense, poor decisions, failure to seize opportunities, and limitations of commitment to a secondary theatre of the war.

The superficial view that Churchill was responsible for the disaster is too simplistic. It is true that he promoted the campaign, but the British government, navy, and army cooperated, albeit over Admiral Jackie Fisher's objections, and the French also agreed to participate, even when the only troops available would have weakened the Western Front in France. Even at the end the alternatives of a second naval rush, land reinforcements, and withdrawal were all seriously considered and hotly debated. The operation's greatest success was the evacuation. After setting up guns to shoot randomly and fires to burn and destroy equipment, Allied troops were able to withdraw in groups with minimal casualties, despite earlier estimates of 25,000–40,000 Allied troops, killed, wounded, or captured during the evacuation.

Due to my limited familiarity with British military personnel during the Great War there were times when I had difficulty following the dramatis personae. In spite of this limitation on my part, author Alan Moorehead was able to tell his story in language that recaptures the reader's attention and stimulates the mind's eye to see the scenes described. A tantalizing taste of the writing is found in a description of the evacuation:

August 2015 Is the 100th Anniversary of the Failure of the Suvla Bay
Attempt to Rejuvenate the Gallipoli Campaign
"Both Anzac and Suvla now were honeycombs of silent, half-deserted trenches, and the men that remained in them were utterly exposed to enemy attack. 'It's getting terribly lonely at night' one of the English soldiers wrote in his diary. 'Not a soul about. Only the excitement keeps us from getting tired.'"

It is the sign of a skilled writer that he can present facts that lead to conclusions without having to tell the reader what the conclusion is. Glimpses of humanity amidst death and destruction, as when the Australian and Turkish troops traded courtesies and gifts, remind the reader of the Christmas Truce on the Western Front of a few months before. The goal of taking pressure off the Russians prefigured the call for a second front some 30 years later. The amphibious landings were precursors of those to follow, including Torch, Sicily, Italy, and Normandy, to say nothing of many across the Pacific.

Readers are left with a sense of loss, of lives spent for no gain, and all the "what might have beens?" At a little more risk and with commitment of available resources, perhaps the invasion would have reached its goals, the separate German-Russian peace prevented, a revolution avoided, and the history of the balance of the twentieth century immeasurably altered. We will never know how things might have turned out, but Gallipoli challenges us to appreciate, to analyze, and to ponder. It is an essential step on the road to an understanding of the Great War.

Jim Gallen


  1. Mooorehead's book is a seminal study of Gallipoli, and this fine review shows why it should be read before reading the later works on the topic. Thank you!

  2. But one should then read Peter Hart's brilliant, which demonstrates that the campaign never had a chance of success. If the Turks invited the Royal Navy and French warships (all old coal-pulled) to come to Istanbul unimpeded, they would have had only enough coal to stay three days. If the Turks did not surrender, the armada would be vulnerable to a blockade of coal supply ships that were not armored. The entire premise for success was the presumed cowardice of the Ottoman leaders And "race" in Churchill's terms. Moorhead is a great writer, but not so great a military historian. Rhodes book is too defensive of Churchill. Hart's is the best of the 8-9 books I have read on Gallipoli